By J.D. Markwardt
I have been in tattoo shops for more than 14 years at this point. I get to meet people from all walks of life. Many of you are bold and confident, some of you are shy and unsure of whether they should be in this place to begin with. But not many of you know how to ask for what you want.
One of the most repeated questions I get is "How much for a tattoo?" One of my mentors always liked to follow that question up with "How much is a bag of groceries?" Then he would stare blankly at the client and most often, they would get it.
Without the sarcasm, this is actually a pretty good answer. I know I have walked out of the grocery store with a single bag containing an item or two, wondering how I spent $200. I have also walked out with a cart packed full, able to use the change I found between the seats of my car. The same logic can be applied to tattoos. It really depends on what you put into them.
So how much does a tattoo cost?
Let's talk about the variables.
First and foremost, you have the artist. They are probably going to be the biggest variable. You may wonder why one artist costs a little more than the next, or why one artist charges by the piece while another is charging by the hour.
Typically this is going to be broken down into:
and, of course, demand.
A more experienced artist will likely have a much better system in place to get you in and out of the door quickly and hopefully with as little pain as possible. Experience will also likely enhance the next category. But keep in mind, you don't want an artist who is in a rush -- not if you are looking for the highest quality.
Some artists do just move a little faster. With proper technique, tattooers with a faster hand speed can get the saturation they want. The specific variables here would take a novel to explain in depth. But just like with any other job, we all have our own movements and systems that will affect how fast a job can get done properly.
Your tattoo design
Now that you have your artist picked out, you gotta tell them what you want. Your design is going to be the next biggest variable. With an endless possibility of designs, a tattoo can cost as little as that shop's minimum (typically around $100) up to 10s of thousands. After all, it is art. You wouldn't expect to walk into a downtown art gallery and pay the same for an original piece of work from a master artist as you would to get a stamped print from the guy selling his stuff on the beach.
Once an artist has an idea of what style you are looking for, they can help you navigate the different options and ways to fit a design into a certain price point.
Your tattoo's size
Size matters. That and placement. If you are trying to cover your upper back in all black tribal, the larger it is, the longer it will take. Makes sense right?
"But my buddy got a back tattoo that was half the size! And he paid just as much as I did. What's that about?" This gets a little complicated, but to keep it short, there were probably more small and detailed areas in your design that eat up time. It's kind of like painting a house. You can use a big roller or sprayer and get a lot of paint on the walls really fast, but when you switch to cutting in the edges with a 2" paint brush, you aren't spreading as much paint, but it takes you longer.
What else affects the cost of a tattoo?
Okay, maybe the artist isn't the biggest variable. If we are being honest, it's the other human that really affects things. It's really all about the person getting the tattoo.
Skin health and type are a major factor in the cost of your tattoo. And most importantly, whether you can sit still and handle the pain. If the client is healthy and comes in and can sit still and stand the pain, the artist can focus on the task at hand and get you in and out. Some skin types and conditions are out of our control, but they do dictate how well the body takes the ink. Coming to your appointment in the healthiest state you can will only help.
The bottom line: What does a tattoo cost?
Once you add all the variables, divide twice and multiply by the x factor, you finally get a price. In the Fort Collins and Northern Colorado area, most places base pricing off of a median $150 per hour price point. Some charge more or less.
Ultimately, don't be afraid to ask more, in-depth questions to better help you understand what you are paying for. If the price seems outrageous compared to what other people are paying, chances are one of the humans in the interaction are being a dick. Reassess and make sure it's not you. If it's not, find yourself a new artist, and you will probably find a new price. If the price doesn't change, reassess again.